Considered by many a throw-in this winter in the Justin Upton trade, Chris Johnson has been an important contributor to the Atlanta Braves' 67-45 mark this year. The third baseman had a history of solid contact, but not much else. While all those weaknesses are still present, he's making better contact than ever.
Coming into this year, Johnson had a .347 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in his 1300+ PAs in his young career. Despite having one of the highest BABIP baselines in the league, he only managed an average .276/.315/.430 slash line. Given his lack of defensive and baserunning abilities, that equates into a below-average player overall. With his hot start and Juan Francisco's struggles to begin the year, Johnson found himself as Chipper Jones' full-time replacement.
This isn't exactly the luckiest high BABIP in the league. A 29% line drive rate and lack of popups show that he makes the type of contact needed to amass such a BABIP. He doesn't get much loft on the ball, possessing a middling ISO despite his 6'3", 220 pound frame. His four infield hits are also indicative to his lack of speed, so he's doing this with just his bat.
Seeing a guy with a standard .350 BABIP come out of the gates with a .400 mark is not too surprising. Seeing that number rise as the season goes on is nearly unthinkable. Through Sunday's game, Johnson has posted a .430 BABIP in 362 PA, something, given that many PAs, that hasn't been seen in over 100 years. When you're doing something that hasn't been done since Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson, it's definitely worth noting. Here are the highest BABIPs with at least 362 PA since 1946:
In an odd mix of names, Johnson easily leads the pack. Despite the historic BABIP, he's "only" got a 142 wRC+, good for 15th in the majors. While that's much better than expected, it shows how hard it could come crashing down. With his current peripherals, setting his BABIP to .400 drops his wRC+ about 15 points, and setting it to a still-tremendous .375 drops the wRC+ another 10 points.
Another odd note is Johnson's negative WPA. He is hitting just fine with RISP, but leverage really sorts out the struggles. He has a .519 BABIP and decent plate discipline in low leverage situations. As the game tightens, walks go down, strikeouts go up, and BABIP goes way down, all the way to .222 in high-leverage PAs. There probably isn't any reason to believe this will last, but it does diminish the actual contribution to runs scored so far this year.
As a Braves fan, it's been great to see a surprise contributor, especially with the two highest-paid players not pulling their weight. A freefall back to normal levels seems inevitable, but until then, Johnson has stabilized a questionable position at the beginning of the season.